Month: May 2010 (page 2 of 5)

Stress and strain

Two naughty colleagues, Eleonora and Simona, snapped the two images published with this post. I’m publishing them because they also, in their own way, give a hint at the atmosphere accompanying the organisation of any big event: long days, security concerns, changes to the agenda – even a student demonstration. So, in one image, I was snatching a catnap on the steps of the Ospedale on Friday lunchtime. The other image shows me moments before Barroso took the floor and speaks for itself. Put it this way; I slept soundly when I got back to Brussels yesterday evening… 

The Istituto degli Innocenti

This is my last post from Florence. I cannot leave without writing something about our hosts, the Istituto degli Innocenti and its President, Alessandra Maggi. Not only is the Ospedale an architectural and cultural jewel (designed by Brunelleschi, decorated by della Robbia, paintings by Botticelli and Ghirlandaio), but it is also, as one of the earliest examples of philanthropy and the beginnings of the welfare state, a perfectly appropriate location for a conference devoted to the theme of combating social exclusion. In fact, the Ospedale was one of the first foundlings’ homes in Europe. Abandoned babies were wet-nursed and weaned and then taught to read and write and apprenticed to various skills in preparation for their re-integration into society (indeed, the plenary sessions of our conference were held in what used to be the boys’ dormitory). It cannot have been easy to have hosted a major international conference in what is now a popular museum but the Istituto and its President managed with elegant and unflappable equanimity. Grazie.

The Biennial Conference – The Closing Session

The Biennial Conference concluded this morning with a dense and rich agenda divided into three parts. In the first, the three rapporteurs from the thematic workshops presented their conclusions and recommendations. In the second, a panel that included the Spanish Equality Minister, Bibiana Aido Almagro, for the Spanish Presidency, European Vice-President Isabelle Durant and former Commissioner Mario Monti discussed the institutional perspectives of what had been discussed over the previous two days. How can the EU’s institutional response be best articulated? And how can different levels of governance best work together in meeting the twin challenges of education and social cohesion? In the third, closing panel EESC President Mario Sepi handed to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso the Conference’s conclusions and Barroso then delivered a keynote address (that you can read here; there is also a video). Here are a few ‘soundbites’ from Barroso’s speech, to give a flavour: ‘You can’t have a monetary union without an economic union. The markets have understood this. I hope the politicians will understand.’; ‘We have problems of poverty that growth and employment cannot resolve. We have poor children, poor pensioners. So the reduction of poverty must also be an objective.’; ‘Not for the next election but for the next generation.’ You can read much more about the conference on the Committee’s website here.

Florence’s ‘renaioli’

Twice I got up early and ran along the banks of the Arno and, not for the first time, wished Brussels could have had a river worth the name. Cities with rivers have extra dimensions (for a start they have two banks) and inevitably lead to pleasing architectural configurations, including bridges, of course. I had the privilege of living and studying in Florence but I always learn something I didn’t know each time I return. This time it was a river-related fact that I happened across whilst paging through a book of old photographs in the Istituto degli Innocenti. The renaioli were sand diggers. They plied the Arno in special flat-bottomed boats, sounding the bottom with long poles to find sand banks. The sand would then be dug up and graded and was particularly used for restoration work. You can read about them here. Some boats still exist but the trade is now gone and thus so has the aspect of the river they once used to ply on a daily basis.

Biennial Conference – l’Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio

It had been a long two days. In the late evening participants were invited to a pretty theatre, Teatro della Pergola (kindly loaned to us for free by the city of Florence), for a memorable concert by a group of musicians gathered from all over the world, l’Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio. They merged together themes and music from Latin America and Asia and Africa and Europe. There was something infectious about their music and about their clear delight in sharing it with us. Very soon people were, literally, dancing in the aisles, culminating in a gigantic conga that snaked its way around the theatre. I shall draw a discreet veil over the rest of the evening. Let me just say that I was not in my seat…!

Biennial Conference – drawing up conclusions

Maureen O'Neill

It is the late evening. The three thematic workshops have finished their discussions and now the three rapporteurs must try to draw conclusions that can be fed into the conference’s recommendations. President Mario Sepi has convoked a meeting in a wonderfully picturesque meeting room. It is tucked away upstairs behind the cloisters in the Istituto degli Innocenti and is where the governing council of the institute has always met. On its walls are gold-framed portraits of the institute’s benefactors over hundreds of years. Mario Sepi gives the floor to each of the rapporteurs in turn: Maureen O’Neill (UK/Various Interests Group); André Mordant (Belgian/Employees’ Group); and Stéphane Buffetaut (French/ Employers’ Group). There is a great deal of convergence and complementarity. But now the rapporteurs must, together with the administration, turn their impressions into written language. These recommendations, once drafted, will be sent to Brussels, where a team of translators is on stand by. And tomorrow morning the conference participants will find the the three sets of recommendations available to them in the Conference’s three working languages. As Secretary General, I am frankly proud of the Committee’s well-oiled machinery. (The three photographs were taken with my mobile phone and are therefore of poor quality but I hope they give a hint of the atmosphere in the meeting.)

André Mordant

Stéphane Buffetaut

Pressing role

An SG has to be on standby for all occasions and roles. The media is much in evidence here at the Biennial Conference and one of my tasks has been to help, where possible, with the interaction between the press and the conference participants. So it was that yesterday midday I found myself chairing a press conference with President Sepi, EP Vice-President Gianni Pitella and the Vice-President of the Region of Tuscany, Stella Targetti – in Italian! This afternoon I was interviewed by a handsome young journalist (he asked me to say that), Stuart Langridge who is composing a Video Blog for EurActiv of the Conference. (link here) Tomorrow, there’ll be another press conference to moderate – proof positive of the media interest that the Biennial Conference and its theme has been generating. Now you can see my interview here.

The opening press conference

Workshop snippets and soundbites

It has just gone midday. The three thematic workshops (on the basis of social inclusion, on education as access to the labour market, and on education as a fundamental right) are now well under way. I have been wandering between them, listening in on the debates, and I have gathered a few snippets and soundbites to give a flavour of the discussions. Luigi Berlinguer (MEP); ‘it’s not just a matter of access to education, but access to the success that education should bring.’ Mostafa el Ayoubi (Editor in chief of ‘Rivista Confronti – Education in the Mosques’); ‘we need a European education policy because national education policies change with each change of government.’ Charlotte Gruber (President of the European Network of Social Integration Enterprises); ‘social integration enterprises are a vital part of our social fabric but many remain largely invisible because they lie between the social and the economic.’ Also, by the same speaker; ‘because so many social integration enterprises are not entirely economically viable and rely heavily on creativity and voluntary work, they have fared better in the economic crisis than might have been expected.’ Cesare Moreno (President of the Association ‘Teachers of the Street’ – a Neapolitan organisation working to reintegrate street children and school dropouts); ‘during the war there were formal armies but there was also the resistance. In Naples, a heavily bombed city, there was a sense of resistance against the hardships that bombardment brought. In the same way, in education, in our societies, we need to complement formal education and formal processes with popular resistance.’

The disturbing increase in relative poverty in Europe

The biennial conference continues this morning. The opening session has just finished. In it, the Committee’s rapporteur, Maria Candelas Sanchez Miguel, presented the main themes of her opinion, adopted in the April plenary session (see 28 April post). As usual, it is invidious to single out particular speakers but I feel I must mention Stefano Zamagni who, thirty years ago, was my professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bologna Center (as was his wife, Vera) and has clearly lost none of his intellectual brilliance. If absolute poverty is almost non-existent in Europe, he argued, there is a disturbing increase in relative poverty – disturbing because it threatens social cohesion and democracy. In Zamagni’s opinion, much of this trend can be attributed to insufficient and inappropriate education and training. The third industrial revolution has changed the structure of the labour market from the previous pyramid to a new ‘hour glass’ type structure, with the choking point not at the menial or specialised level, but in between. Accordingly, Zamagni continued, schooling for all is necessary but not sufficient: ‘study is not enough; you must be appropriately qualified’. To study and graduate and then become unemployed is damaging psychologically and damages the social and political fabric. Moreover, informal education is an increasingly important complement to formal structures and non-profit and charitable organisations (several of whom have stands in the Piazza outside our conference) have an important role to play. Zamagni’s speech was an excellent aperitivo for the work of the three thematic workshops that are just getting underway now.

Student protests and a friendly chat

The conference had just got under way this afternoon when shouting and chanting started in the piazza outside, led by two young men with a megaphone. It was a well-timed demonstration by a collective of unemployed former students and former students (mainly teachers) in vulnerable jobs. The demonstration was well-timed in two senses. The first was that it coincided perfectly with the delivery of the set-piece speeches inside. The second was that the subject matter being protested outside coincided well with the subject matter being discussed inside. By chance, our conference was being guarded by an abnormally heavy contingent of carabinieri (a nearby consulate is expecting visitors!) and that was surely mis-read by the students as hypocrisy on our part (any one of them would have been welcome to attend the conference and make their point of view known). So I went and spoke to them in the piazza and explained that they were in fact preaching to the converted when it came to the importance of education and employment. I asked them to draft a declaration, which they did, and I promised to put it on my blog, which I have (click  ‘read the rest of this entry’ below). I confessed that I had a nostalgic soft spot for them. In the autumn of 1979, when I first set foot in Italy, in Bologna, there were serious student riots and serious clashes with the carabinieri. The riots were about rents for student lodgings. The stench of tear gas hung over the university quarter for over a week. There was strong fellow feeling among the students of the Bologna Center at the time, of which I was one. I’d better say no more! But I hope the student protestors I met will come to the Committee’s site and see that, actually, it is constantly concerned with the sort of themes that so impassion them.

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